.NET Fringe: A Great Role Model for Community Oriented Conferences

A few of us just went to a smaller .NET conference in Portland, called .NET Fringe. For me, it was the third time I attended .NET Fringe. I’ve realized that this conference has gained a special place in my heart, so thought it would be worthwhile writing up why that is.

My goal isn’t to convince you to attend .NET Fringe per se, but to outline what makes it special and what you should seek out when choosing conferences to attend to or speak at. And if you’re a conference organizer, I hope I can motivate you to take a look at .NET Fringe and see it as a role model.

What are you looking for?

It’s important to realize that different styles of conferences are good at different things:

  • Blockbuster movie-style. Larger conferences (like Build, Google IO, or WWDC) are great for learning how a particular company sees the future and what technology it provides to get you there. These conferences often provide deep dives for specific technologies, allowing you to strengthen your understanding while also giving you a broader picture of their stack. I like to think of these as blockbuster movies because they focus on broadcasting a particular message to the mainstream, which makes you mostly a consumer.
  • Board game-style. Smaller conferences are often very good at networking between attendees and speakers. And depending on the diversity of the talks, they can also do an amazing job at inspiring you. They often involve activities beyond the talks, such as “mingling”, round tables, and lightning talks. As an attendee, you’re not just a consumer, you’re also an active participant in providing content for other attendees. That’s why I like to think of these conferences as board games — the players are part of the experience.

I don’t want to promote one style over the other here. The number one thing that I hear from customers is that it’s becoming harder and harder to keep up-to-date with what’s going on. Blockbuster conferences are really good at providing a time efficient way to gain a picture of the landscape, while the smaller conferences allow you to exchange with others how to apply that knowledge to your particular situation.

And let’s not forget that the tech itself is only part of the challenge we’re facing as developers, architects, team leads and product owners. We also have to deal with managing projects, leading people, balancing family & work, and handling stress & burn out. Those topics are usually not addressed by the blockbuster conferences at all.

What makes .NET Fringe special?

The organizers of .NET Fringe have made it a key point that diversity isn’t just a keyword. They go out of their way to seek out diverse speakers, from all sorts of skills & backgrounds. And that’s a very good thing in my opinion. At Microsoft, we believe that diversity and inclusion are key ingredients for innovation. Based on my personal experience at Microsoft, I can say that a good chunk of the skills I gained is a direct result of the diverse culture we have on my team. Exposing yourself to people with different opinions is not only refreshing, it makes sure you don’t get too comfortable in the way things are, which is vitally important considering the number one invariant in our industry is change.

While .NET Fringe is (obviously) focused on the .NET stack, the topics aren’t exclusively about .NET. Some of the talks were much broader. One talk was about linguistics and how grammar and language constructs have a profound and lasting impact on the way we think and the way we become biased to specific patterns. Another talk was motivating the audience to become polyengineers, which means an engineer of many technologies, to avoid being replaced by automatism.

I also quite like the format of the sessions: There were no long talks. Full sessions were 30 minutes, and they were often separated by lightning talks, which are only 5 minutes long. The cool thing about lightning talks is that you can sign up for them during the conference. It’s a great way to get your feet wet on talking at conferences. As an attendee, I really enjoy the mix because it avoids the typical conference fatigue after watching multiple 60 minute sessions. And the lack of the traditional Q&A is easily offset by the fact that the conference is small and attendees just talk to the speaker afterwards.

On top of that, the organizers provided guided mingling, encouraging the attendees to talk to each other during breaks. While we often celebrate the extroverted speakers and hero developers, most of us are quite shy when it comes to interacting with people we’ve never met. Being constantly reminded that we all have these fears has helped forming a welcoming and family-like atmosphere at .NET Fringe, where meeting new people is incredibly easy and pleasant.

The socializing component was helped tremendously by having the conference venue, hotels, restaurants and bars for the parties all within walking distance. This ensures that attendees are never far from each other and groups can form that retain the social momentum from the conference well into personal time.

A unique thing about .NET Fringe is the Geek Train: it’s an organized train ride from Seattle to Portland. So, the socializing doesn’t start at the conference, but instead starts during travel to the conference.

One downside of smaller conferences is that speakers are often not too inclined to spend their time preparing a talk because they can only reach a small audience. At .NET Fringe, speakers get the reach their talk deserves: not only were all sessions recorded and made available on YouTube, everything was instantaneously shared via live-broadcasting too.

But as a speaker myself, I wasn’t too concerned about reach. Personally, I gained a lot from the discussions I had with other attendees. This included a passionate roundtable discussion on abuse in open-source projects and what we can do to avoid burning out maintainers and helping more people to be successful first-time contributors.

Highlighted Talks

Picking favorites is always hard and fundamentally unfair. But here is my fully biased set of talks that I encourage you check out from .NET Fringe:

Full Talks (30 min)

Lightning Talks (5 min)

Content-wise, .NET Fringe is very much true to its name: it’s a very stimulating conference as it also explores areas that are usually not getting a lot of attention in blockbuster conferences, be that F#, ethics, or .NET IL.

Like what you hear? Great. Then check out the full playlist with all the talks:

More information

If you liked what you’ve seen so far, check out these other resources too:

  • What is .NET Fringe? This is a Channel 9 interview of the organizers of .NET Fringe, namely Glenn Block, Troy Howard, and Adron Hall. A must see.
  • What makes .NET Fringe different? Great post by Sean Killeen on his experience at .NET Fringe. The post that peer pressured inspired me to write this post.
  • Organizing Great Events Like .NET Fringe. Adron Hall provides a ton of insight into all the thinking that went into organizing .NET Fringe — much of what I only hinted at above.

Summary

You can easily get an impression of what I saw at .NET Fringe by browsing the pictures I took:

My goal isn’t to advocate that all of you should attend .NET Fringe. In fact, part of the charm of this conference is that it doesn’t have thousands of attendees but a group that is big enough to provide a diverse perspective while still feeling like a community.

But I do want to encourage you to seek out conferences like .NET Fringe. And if you’re a conference organizer, I hope this post motivated you to take a closer look at .NET Fringe — it’s absolutely worth emulating.